This article is based on the webinar “The Ethics of Research on Poverty” held in April 2018. Coauthored by the four presenters of the webinar, it brings together perspectives on poverty from lived experience in the United States, academia, the District Six Museum in South Africa, and the Joseph Wresinski Centre for Archives and Research in France. The article argues that the ethical principles of participatory action research (PAR) are too generic to address the specific characteristics of research projects conducted with people living in poverty. PAR projects on poverty require, in addition to the relevant general ethical principles of PAR (i.e., leading transformational PAR, treating all participants as co-researchers, nurturing respect for the individual and the group, and raising awareness on the level of literacy of each participant), specific ethical guidelines. For PAR to address the needs of people living in poverty, the choice of words on poverty should be aimed at reducing symbolic and epistemic violence, questions should be framed so as to encourage knowledge to be shared, research should yield direct benefits to participants and outweigh risks, and researchers should aim at eradicating extreme poverty. Researchers failing to apply these principles may find themselves guilty of committing unintended symbolic or epistemic violence to the thinking of people in poverty or fall for the soft bigotry of low expectations that inevitably triggers underperformance. To bridge the divide between narratives of people in poverty and interpretations of these narratives , researchers should be aware of their own biases and remain open to being challenged.
This article is based on the webinar “The Ethics of Research on Poverty” held in April 2018 by the following four presenters: Stacy Randell-Shaheen, USA (director of the Adult Learning Centre); Bonita Bennett, South Africa (former director of the District Six Museum in Cape Town); Donna Haig Friedman, USA (former director of the UMass Boston’s Center for Social Policy); and Bruno Tardieu, France (director of the Joseph Wresinski International Centre, ATD Fourth World). Coauthored by the four presenters of the webinar, the article asserts that participatory action research (PAR) on poverty needs specific ethical guidelines in addition to the general ethical principles of PAR. Through the inputs of the four webinar hosts, it explores the ethical guidelines required to carry out PAR projects on poverty and reflects on the challenges they present.
Of comprehensive knowledge about poverty and social exclusion—knowledge meant to inform, to explain, and to lead people to action—academic research will never be more than one component among others. It is the information component, partially explanatory, and thus lifeless. It will remain lifeless as long as two other components of knowledge are missing. These two autonomous and complementary components, which will add life and meaning, are: the knowledge which the poor and excluded have, from their first-hand experience, of the twin realities of poverty and the surrounding world which imposes poverty on them; and the knowledge of those who work among and with these victims in places of poverty and social exclusion.(Wresinski 1980)
“Community participation has become the norm […]. Although that still makes many academics uncomfortable, people increasingly acknowledge that local, experiential, or applied knowledge can enrich the quality and impact of investigations. The work is more responsive, socially relevant and connected to affected communities” (Willyard, Scudellari, and Nording 2018). This excerpt comes from one of the articles on participatory action research (PAR) published in a recent issue of the scientific journal Nature by freelance science journalists, entitled “Partners in Science: The People Who Should Benefit from Research Are Increasingly Shaping How It Is Done.” The San people, an overresearched community in South Africa, having had enough of being used by researchers, recently created a code of ethics to be imposed on all researchers wanting to study their community (San people 2017). In this code, they ban the use of the derogatory term “Bushmen,” they demand authority over approving and reviewing research that involves their community, and they request real benefits from the experience, not just promises of potential benefits in the future.
The two points above indicate the vital importance of this topic in today’s world. Although the struggle between classic research and PAR still exists, the PAR approach is not completely on the sidelines.
The history of PAR is marked by studies conducted by renowned philosophers and sociologists who believed in its relevance in society, such as Paolo Freire in his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which criticized the education system as reinforcing structures of oppression. Following Freire, Fals Borda, the Colombian sociologist, was one of the first contributors to the PAR approach in social sciences, which he defined as an “‘experiential methodology [which] implies the acquisition of serious and reliable knowledge upon which to construct power, or countervailing power, for the poor, oppressed and exploited groups and social classes—the grassroots—and for their authentic organizations and movement’” (Gutiérrez 2016). His work with activists and indigenous communities on questions of colonization of thought in Latin American society (Lomeli and Rappaport 2018) led to the development of PAR-specific terms such as “vivencias, to explain something more than what is merely experienced, but actually what is lived” (Gutiérrez 2016).
Another philosopher and educator who contributed to the development of PAR was John Dewey, who established ideas of social inquiry and encouraged research alongside stakeholders. His concept of pragmatism “rejected the dualistic epistemology and metaphysics of modern philosophy in favor of a naturalistic approach that viewed knowledge as arising from an active adaptation of the human organism to its environment” (Stark 2014), which eventually paved the way for the PAR approach.
Feminist author Mary Belenky also serves as an example of a researcher using PAR methods in her work entitled “Women’s Ways of Knowing” in 1986. By gathering a diverse group of 135 women, she sought to delve into the epistemic injustices that women (as an oppressed group) face and the ways in which their cognitive development is affected by them. In this particular work, she establishes a hierarchy of liberation as a knower, beginning with “silence” and ending with “constructed knowledge.” This resulting theory can apply to many groups of oppressed people, including people living in poverty (Belenky et al. 1986).
While all of these academics were extremely influential in the development and evolution of PAR, it is worth noting that there are certain principles and methods that are needed and that apply specifically to PAR on poverty.
The webinar at which the four authors of this article presented grew out of a one-week symposium that celebrated the centenary of Joseph Wresinski, founder of ATD Fourth World. The symposium was held in June 2017 in Cerisy (France) and was entitled “Rethinking Our World from the Perspective of Poverty with Joseph Wresinski.” The participants drew from their own experiences with extreme poverty (either by living in extreme poverty or by being engaged with people most affected by poverty), and four of them organized the webinar to discuss ethical guidelines that they want to see applied in PAR projects on poverty. According to Daniel Selener in the Handbook of Action Research, participatory research is a “process through which members of an oppressed group or community identify a problem, collect and analyse information, and act upon the problem in order to find solutions and to promote social and political transformation” (Bradbury and Reason 2011, 1). As PAR focuses less on the “quest for knowledge” than on the “transformation of individual attitudes and values” (Bradbury and Reason 2011, 32), it is adapted to research on extreme poverty.
Extreme poverty has been defined by Joseph Wresinski as “the absence of one or more factors enabling individuals and families to assume basic responsibilities and to enjoy fundamental rights. […] This lack of basic security leads to chronic poverty when it simultaneously affects several aspects of people’s lives, when it is prolonged and when it severely compromises people’s chances of regaining their rights and of re-assuming their responsibilities in the foreseeable future” (Wresinski 1987).
However, using this definition does not make us blind to the fact that there are other relationships of domination within groups of poor people (i.e., exploitation, gender domination, racism). Existing literature on intersectionality, a concept articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw originally to describe the oppression of Black women, explains how systems of oppression overlap to create distinct experiences for people with multiple identity categories (Crenshaw 1991). This can be seen through different relationships of domination; for example, it is important to recognize the different forms of oppression faced by Black women living in poverty and white men living in poverty. However, studies on feminism, such as Crenshaws (1991) can also help to reflect on similar relationships of domination experienced by people living in poverty.
While the authors respectfully recognize that there are a variety of angles from which to look at poverty, and believe that there is a lot to be learned from these different individual perspectives and forms of domination, they took this particular angle on poverty based on their experiences and research. Their definition describes some of the things that trap the poor into poverty and that seem to justify the domination of the generally poor by the generally nonpoor, leading to their social exclusion. It relates to the notion of the “Fourth World,” designed in the 1970s by Joseph Wresinski at ATD Fourth World. This notion was inspired by the Fourth Estate of the French Revolution, as described by Dufourny de Villiers, which was made up of people who were politically excluded from the revolutionary process because of their poverty (Dufourny de Villiers  2021). There are also differences in the way poor people treat those poorer than they are, which creates a tension between the poor and the extremely poor and thus recreates the process of social exclusion among groups of poor people.
Through this perspective on poverty, ATD Fourth World developed the Merging of Knowledge and Practices approach, which led to many research projects, including the most recent one: a collaborative study with the University of Oxford entitled “The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty” (Dimensions of Poverty Research 2019), which was conducted in six countries. It details nine dimensions of poverty as a way to “refine the understanding and measurement of poverty by engaging with people directly experiencing poverty, practicioners and academics” and to “contribute to more sensitive policy design at the national and international level and thereby to the eradication of poverty.” The research is accompanied by a diagram depicting the different dimensions and the relationships between them for people living in poverty. In the inner circle, the right half refers to issues of human rights (struggle and resistance) while the left half refers to problems related to social exclusion (suffering in body, mind, and heart), which shows that there is a vicious circle between a lack of rights and social exclusion that leads to disempowerment. This PAR study reinforces Wresinski’s idea that people living in poverty around the world often experience similar injustices and forms of domination, despite any differences in identity, culture, or experience that may exist among them.
In this article, the authors posit that the ethical principles of PAR are not developed enough to suit the unique characteristics of research projects carried out with people living in extreme poverty. First, the article situates the ethical principles discussed in the webinar vis-à-vis the existing literature on PAR. Then, it elaborates on some specific ethical principles that need to be applied in PAR projects on poverty, as presented during the webinar.
I. Ethical Guidelines to Apply in PAR on Poverty
The four webinar presenters come from different cultural, academic, and professional backgrounds and have all had experiences with people living in extreme poverty. Depending on where they work, they have faced different challenges. For instance, D. H. Friedman has had to fight against many forces that questioned participatory research as a valid knowledge-building approach, including external funding agencies with specific agendas and a preference for traditional scientific research methods, and university leaders with a competitive outlook and a top-down relation to power. B. Tardieu and the committee of ethics at the Joseph Wresinski International Centre have to ensure that external researchers’ access to archive material conforms with the centre’s ethical principles. S.Randell- Shaheen has always sought to make the public respect the words, time, and potential of people living in poverty. And B. Bennett continuously works to extend the role of the District Six Museum, which preserves the memory of the mixed, vibrant community that lived harmoniously in this district before Apartheid, as an entity that not only gives a voice to the community but also creates this voice with the community.
Elaborating on existing principles
The varying experiences that the webinar presenters have had with extreme povertyled them to identify the existing ethical principles of PAR that are specifically relevant to PAR on poverty.
The transformational aspect of PAR: The webinar presenters reinforced what is written in literature about the need for researchers to lead transformational PAR. S. Shaheen emphasized the importance of researchers taking the following question into account: how will your research make a lasting difference in the lives of people living in poverty, in the systems that oppress them, and in the policies that foster racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, et cetera? B. Bennett described the District Six Museum as a significant ground for transformation, as it aims to bring about change in people’s perceptions.
Subject/object: A second guideline found in literature and discussed during the webinar demands that all participants in PAR be treated as subjects and co-researchers, and not as objects. “Being a participant in this research, means to ’break up voluntarily and through experience the asymmetrical relationship of submission and dependence implicit in the subject/object binomial” (Fals Borda 1991, as cited in Gutiérrez 2016). S. Shaheen considers this guideline the most basic component of ethical PAR on poverty. She stressed the need to design research projects in which participants are co-researchers based on the fact that they are experts on their own lives. Hence, there should be no “other,” no divide between “us” and “them.”
B. Bennett echoed Joseph Wresinski’s cautions about using people as objects to verify or interpret research. She described how interviewed community members felt uncomfortable after journalists had left as soon as they had gathered the information they needed, without any discussion on what the stories were for or where they would be published.
D. H. Friedman considers that people most directly affected by poverty benefit from being engaged as co-researchers from start to finish. When people with direct experience of poverty take on meaningful co-researcher roles in PAR projects on poverty and get the appropriate recognition, engagement creates a sense of shared ownership and joy. Furthermore, this true collaboration based on the recognition of everyone’s input as a partner provides learning opportunities for all and strengthens research. The presenters all agreed with B. Bennett that successful research engagement originates with the integrity of the people involved.
Mutual respect: A third guideline appearing in the Handbook of Action Research and discussed during the webinar stresses the importance of genuine respect for the process and the ideas of each PAR participant. The four webinar hosts emphasized the need to cultivate an environment of mutual respect when conducting a joint research project. B. Bennett recommended moving the focus from what people do not have (a deficit model of research) to what they do have and what they bring to the table. D. H. Friedman argued that the success of PAR projects depends on each group of participants bringing their own expertise, and on this expertise being respected and valued. B. Tardieu spoke of the respect required of researchers working on the archives of the Joseph Wresinski International Centre. The code of ethics they are required to sign places great emphasis on respecting the dignity of the individual and the group.
Level of literacy: S. Shaheen raised another issue addressed in literature: namely, participants’ level of literacy. The acknowledgment of the crucial role of language is a major step in the shaping of PAR. S. Shaheen highlighted the need to check the literacy level of PAR participants, and in particular those who have lived or are living in extreme poverty. She gave the example of participants with only four years of formal education who were not able to understand the consent forms they were asked to sign. Researchers need to ensure that they understand the community they are going into.
Introducing new ideas
Because the ethical principles of PAR addressed in the Handbook of Action Research and elsewhere are too generic to meet the unique characteristics of research on poverty, the webinar presenters further elaborated on existing principles to apply them to research projects involving people living in poverty.
Concerning mutual respect among participants, B. Tardieu elaborated on the code of ethics that applies to all researchers working on the archives of the Joseph Wresinski International Centre. Apart from the ethical imperative to respect the dignity of the individual and the group, all researchers must respect the right to privacy of people living in poverty. In this sense, archives may not be opened without the prior consent of the people who entrusted them to the centre. Furthermore, the idea of respect being associated with that of rights, the code of ethics insists on the right to self-expression and the duty to grant a value of truth to expression. Research ought to be checked against the interpretation of people in poverty themselves, as they have a deep understanding of their own story regardless of their situation. Also related to respect is the importance for researchers to take the time to get to know the people they work with. S. Shaheen highlighted the need for participants to feel secure. When conducting research with people who live in extreme poverty, researchers need to meet them where they are most comfortable, go to their homes, and visit them in their neighbourhoods.
With regard to the imperative of averting the subject/object divide, the webinar hosts highlighted a major challenge frequently faced by people living in poverty: symbolic1 and epistemic violence.2 This violence occurs when researchers perceive people living in poverty as objects, preventing them from developing their own knowledge and understanding. Unlike physical or mental forms of violence that can be encountered in other PAR projects and that are more concrete, symbolic violence tends to go unnoticed. This form of violence needs to be acknowledged and addressed in ethical guidelines.
The webinar presenters introduced ethical guidelines to be followed in research projects involving people living in poverty. These cannot be found elsewhere in the literature on PAR.
Choice of words: The importance of choosing the “right” language and words is closely related to the idea of symbolic violence. S. Shaheen explained how the choice of appropriate words—especially around people who live in extreme poverty and who might suffer from low self-esteem and repeated humiliations—can be central to the success of PAR. As an example of the power of language, she cited a speech by Barack Obama in which he described himself as coming from a “broken home” because it was a single-parent home.
Who frames the questions?: Another important issue should be at the heart of PAR, alongside genuine co-researching and shared ownership: the framing of questions. Just by asking the questions, researchers can dominate and orient the research, intentionally or not. When researchers ask questions that reflect their own perceptions but that fail to acknowledge the perceptions of people in poverty, they risk conducting research that ignores the needs of people in poverty.
B. Tardieu pointed out that people in poverty also have questions that they need to formulate—sometimes the most powerful questions. Joseph Wresinski shed light on the same issue a few decades ago when he emphasized how unethical it is for researchers to impose questions on people living in extreme poverty, as these questions hinder the efforts of participants to formulate their own. In a speech given at UNESCO in 1980, Wresinski said: “No one has the right, even in the name of science, to hinder another’s effort […] to develop a liberating outlook. […] For it cannot be said too often that to hinder the poorest people by using them as informants—rather than encouraging them to develop their own thinking as a genuinely autonomous act—is to enslave them” (Wresinski 1980). Researchers should take the time to ask participants in PAR projects if they would like to explore other ways to communicate their input. As B. Bennett put it, “It is nothing but immersing ourselves in where people are; it is actually not asking questions but having conversations.”
D. H. Friedman contended that researchers rarely know much about how poor people survive. They therefore rarely ask the important questions, nor do they listen deeply or establish meaningful partnerships. Solutions that are generated from the top down can be harmful and disrupt the informal ways in which people support one another—a horizontal relationship that provides meaningful basis for informing measures that lead to policy change. Indeed, people living in extreme poverty could propose measures that lead to policy change. B. Tardieu underlined the need to conduct basic research prior to advocacy. Researchers tend to think they know what must be changed, but they have to make sure they address the right issues. B. Bennett added that policymakers should go to communities to learn about the different social phenomena they display—for instance, how poor communities exercise social cohesion. Both researchers and policymakers need to recognize that not all knowledge comes from books.
Benefits greater than risks: The presenters agreed that PAR projects on poverty, just like on any other research topic, should ensure that participants experience fewer risks and greater benefits. D. H. Friedman spoke of the San people in South Africa, to whom researchers promised that they would eventually benefit from policy changes resulting from the research, but who did not benefit directly from the research itself.
S. Shaheen added that benefits to participants should be not only moral in nature but also monetary. PAR on poverty should not entail any hidden costs for participants, she said; participating should not cost them anything. Furthermore, participants should be paid for their time. When S. Shaheen was conducting research for her master’s degree, she paid participants in compensation for the time they did not spend at work. S. Shaheen also insisted on the need to include sections on policy change and fiscal processes in research guidelines to make sure that people benefit from offering their time and participation. Any ethical dilemma, she said, could be circumvented by classifying payment as a “stipend” rather than a “monetary reward.” The stipend is a recognition that the time of people in poverty is valuable, that their opinions matter, and that they matter as people.
What is at stake?: Finally, the webinar presenters emphasized the ethical imperative of ensuring that participants know what is at stake. Ethical guidelines for medical and behavioural research stipulate that participation should be voluntary. In contrast, guidelines on PAR do not demand that potential participants fully understand the overall vision of the research. B. Tardieu pointed out that the right of participants to know the overall vision of the research is included in the code of ethics of the Joseph Wresinski International Centre. What is more, the overall vision of the research should be the liberation of people living in extreme poverty. S. Shaheen contended that researchers must also be advocates. Because the consequences of cumulative disadvantages are too harmful to be ignored, researchers on poverty have the moral duty to speak out, to use a part of their research to make a difference. B. Tardieu stated that if the hope of transformation is not shared and stated, oppressed people may not trust the process and may not be willing to share their experiences. There must be a common ethical ground among both researchers and participants. While working with activist communities in the United States, B. Tardieu heard the statement “we don’t care how much you know until we know how much you care.” Therefore, while the results of a PAR research project on poverty are subject to change and evolution throughout the process, the overall vision of the research cannot be mere knowledge. It must be liberation.
II. Risks Related to the Failure to Apply Those Ethical Principles
As has been discussed, the webinar presenters paid due attention to the Handbook on Action Research and delved further into some ethical issues that arise from conducting PAR on poverty. While insufficient emphasis has been placed on ethical guidelines suitable for PAR projects conducted on poverty and with people living in extreme poverty, there has also been insufficient reflection on the risks and negative outcomes caused by failing to apply these guidelines. The webinar hosts discussed some of these risks.
Risk 1: Narratives without essential input. When participants in PAR projects on poverty are not treated as real co-researchers, a narrative may be created about people in poverty that does not include their input. Such narrative could fail to give an accurate idea of what they endure and will not necessarily be able to address their real needs. This happens too often and prevents the public from fully understanding and seeing the harsh realities of a life in poverty.
While this risk may seem inherent to the founding principles of the PAR approach, there is always a risk of bias on the part of researchers, especially in practice. Whether researchers are conscious of this or not, there is a history of centuries of epistemic domination in the field that has led to the development of epistemic vices (prejudices or closed-mindedness), on the side of both the researcher and the stakeholder. For example, people living in poverty often feel sure that they don’t know enough, and thus, they may feel that their contributions are not valid. For this reason, effectively carrying out high-quality action research requires researchers to always keep the founding PAR principles in mind by treating participants as co-researchers.
Risk 2: Unintended symbolic violence. Many of the risks are linked to the epistemic and symbolic violence that can be displayed, usually unintentionally, in PAR on poverty. This form of violence is usually directed towards the thinking of people in poverty. S. Shaheen highlighted the importance of getting to know the people living in poverty and helping them feel comfortable enough to participate. Also, given that there is a high incidence of trauma among people living in poverty, researchers should be familiar with trauma-informed care. As an example, they should ask participants where they want to sit, because people who have been through trauma often want to sit closer to a door to feel more secure. This kind of approach is essential when conducting PAR projects with people living in poverty.
Risk 3: The soft bigotry of low expectations. People living in poverty are often denied opportunities because of the low expectations of others. S. Shaheen argued that if expectations are low—for children in particular—people in poverty can end up underperforming even though they are as capable as anyone else. For example, African American students drop out of school at disproportionate rates, often because teachers and administrators do not expect much from them. S. Shaheen asked researchers to examine the expectations they have of people in poverty and to expect the best, because researchers are going to learn a lot from the other people participating in the research.
Further, bigotry would also mean not allowing people living in poverty to criticize each other. Thus, quality PAR would enable people experiencing social exclusion and/or poverty to enter into a critical learning community and build knowledge that goes beyond each person’s individual testimony and towards a collective knowledge. This relates to the concept of positional objectivity, coined by Amartya Sen: “The subject matter of an objective assessment can well be the way an object appears from a specified position of an observation. What is observed can vary from position to position, but different people can conduct their respective observations from similar positions and make much the same observations” (Sen 1993). Thus, by critically learning together, people living in poverty can reach a collective positional objectivity seen from their perspective.
The webinar presenters further discussed how to avoid those risks.
On how to help people in poverty express their thinking, the floor was given to the District Six Museum in South Africa. B. Bennett explained that the museum provides a platform through which community members can freely share their stories and voices. The platform resists the label it has been assigned as an entity merely acknowledging the voice of the community, in that it establishes rigorous processes for participating in the creation and amplification of the community’s voice. The museum offers the ability to remember and record the past in ways that make sense to the community members. B. Bennett added that this process is of crucial importance in the configuration of the “new” South Africa. The establishment of this type of safe space is essential in creating discussion and debate within groups of poor people. It enables people to spell out, criticize, and define their theories with others who have had similar experiences. Just as academics and practitioners have the capacity to build debates and consensus, people in poverty need the same space to do so. It allows for validity of their opinions, personal thinking, and positional objectivity. ATD Fourth World’s People’s University, a forum where people from all types of backgrounds meet to discuss and share ideas, serves as an example of this kind of safe space of free expression.
B. Tardieu elaborated on how to bridge the divide between the stories of people in poverty and researchers’ interpretations of those stories. It is important to acknowledge this divide and the danger of interpreting other people’s stories. Researchers must listen carefully and identify their own biases and emotions (anger or sadness, for example). Then, they should be open to the tables being turned—to other people interpreting their stories. They should share their own thoughts and see how people in poverty react to them, because people in poverty also need the academic community for knowledge to be built together. This process is at the heart of ATD Fourth World’s “Merging Knowledge” approach.
While it may be challenging to carry out ethical PAR projects on poverty and with people living in poverty, it is not impossible. In order to do so, it is necessary to defend the quality of PAR in a world where classic research challenges it and where shallow action research waters down central PAR principles, making them less meaningful. Previous PAR research has shown that when the “right” conditions pertain, “successful,” beneficial, and ethical PAR projects can take place. This leads us to wonder whether the specific ethical guidelines that should be applied in PAR projects on poverty could also be applied to PAR projects in other areas.
The authors have no competing interests to declare.
As coined by Pierre Bourdieu, symbolic violence is nonphysical violence that “represents the way in which people play a role in reproducing their own subordination through the gradual internalization and acceptance of those ideas and structures that tend to subordinate them. It is an act of violence precisely because it leads to the constraint and subordination of individuals, but it is also symbolic in the sense that this is achieved indirectly and without overt and explicit acts of force or coercion. … For Bourdieu, the notion of symbolic violence is central to understanding how social class inequalities are reproduced (see Bourdieu and Passeron 1990; Connolly and Healy 2004)”.
Epistemic injustice refers to a wrong done to “someone as a knower or transmitter of knowledge: due to unjustified prejudice, someone is unfairly judged to not have the knowledge or reasonable beliefs that they actually have” (Fricker 2007). Fricker identifies two forms of epistemic injustice: testimonial and hermeneutical.